After recent protests against social distancing requirements designed to combat the spread of COVID-19, some of our supporters have asked where the ACLU of Wisconsin stands on these demonstrations.
COVID-19 is a deadly and extremely infectious disease that states have taken extraordinary and unprecedented measures to combat. Many of these, such as Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order, involve restrictions on personal liberty, by requiring people to avoid large gatherings, stay home if they can, and close non-essential businesses.
Measures like this that infringe on personal liberty can be justified when they keep others safe, as long as they are grounded in science and facts – and not discrimination. For example, while laws against texting and driving certainly infringe personal liberties, they can protect others from distracted drivers and save lives.
Likewise, government officials may temporarily limit in-person gatherings in circumstances where medical and scientific experts agree that assemblies of people pose an immediate and grave risk to public health. That is why, for reasons of public health and safety, the ACLU of Wisconsin does not oppose Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order, recently extended to May 26. Evidence clearly shows that measures such as limiting the size of gatherings and physical distancing can slow or stop the spread of COVID-19.
However, these measures must be carefully considered, monitored, and re-evaluated when the medical and scientific consensus changes. Even under emergency orders, the First Amendment right to protected speech, including protest speech, remains in effect. Government officials should ensure that these social distancing measures do not deny people the right to petition their government, observe official proceedings, or speak out against matters of public concern.
Just as the goal of these emergency orders is to protect public health, particularly among people of color and other groups who face health disparities, the goal of enforcing the orders always should be to protect public health by preventing further harm. Enforcement of emergency orders should not exacerbate racial disparities and arrests should always be a last resort. The ACLU of Wisconsin is monitoring reports of disparate treatment and enforcement that reinforces existing forms of discrimination, such as racial profiling.
Above all, we urge people with concerns about the response to the pandemic to consider the health and safety of their community. This pandemic is a powerful example of how the actions of a single individual or group can have serious and life-threatening consequences for all of us. Protesters should keep this in mind, keep themselves safe, and avoid putting further demands on overburdened healthcare professionals.
Unfortunately the use of racist symbols such as the Confederate flag at other recent protests in Wisconsin strongly suggests that these protesters do not have the best interests of their fellow Wisconsinites at heart. While some organizers have compared their protests to acts of civil disobedience led by Rosa Parks and other heroes of the civil rights movement, their display of racist symbols and weaponry mocks this claim.
Even as we urge officials to exercise restraint in the enforcement of these orders, everyone has a responsibility to condemn the protesters' racist rhetoric and flagrant disregard for the well-being of their community. Yes, anti-quarantine protesters have rights – but they are no Rosa Parks, and they are putting us all at risk.